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Kobe Bryant Is Really Gone

(originally written 2/8/20)

Kobe Bryant is dead.

It's been almost two weeks, and that sentence still evades personal comprehension.

Legends don't die this young. They just don't. I wasn't around when Roberto Clemente perished in that 1972 plane crash, but I can still safely say based on personal research and the plain old eye test that Clemente wasn't the icon Kobe Bryant was, at least not to non-Latinos. The baseball world stopped when Clemente died; the whole world stopped when Bryant died.

Well, not right away, at first. When the news broke, many thought some buttface—to quote Shaquille O'Neal—was playing a sick prank. Someone with no life and no conscience went out of his/her way to convince major news organizations that possibly the greatest Los Angeles Laker of them all—and there have been a LOT—had died in a helicopter crash at age 41.

If you follow Twitter, you know hoaxes are just part of the experience, like going through the arena's security gates. You learn to tune them out because they're always false, and often ridiculous.

I was returning from a brief errand that Sunday afternoon when I read the news on my Twitter feed. Trending topics like "Bryant Dead In Helicopter Crash" and "#RIPKobe" stared back at me. Naturally, I convinced myself the news was incomplete, if not outright phony, and continued with my browsing.
Some time passed, with the trending topics unchanged. During my browsing, ESPN and others not only reported Bryant's death, but confirmed it. This was no hoax. This was stark reality. 

But HOW? HOW could it be? Bryant had just started his second career in the film industry and was proving to be pretty damn good at that, too—we saw him win an Oscar not long ago. We heard he'd personally congratulated current Laker star LeBron James for passing him on the all-time NBA scoring list just the night before the crash. It made no sense. Titans like Bryant don't just up and die, leaving behind a widow and three children. Especially not when they're just performing dad duties for a fourth child, who also died in the crash.

Bryant had been born in 1978, starred in high school basketball, starred in the NBA for 20 years, and was going to star in film for another 30-40 years or so until he got old and retired from that, as well. Along the way he'd have grandchildren and maybe show them a thing or two about hoops as with his daughter Gianna. He'd remain in the public eye, however. We'd watch him start to grow old, sitting courtside for Gianna's WNBA games toward the end of this decade.

At least that's what we assumed his life script read; as we all now know, the Gods deviated from that script big time about halfway through. If this were a hoop game, said Gods would be slapped with one hell of a technical foul right now.

In the ensuing hours, I wasn't sure how to feel about Bryant's death. Obviously, his loss is a big blow to the sports world I so deeply immerse myself in every day. I respected him as a player. Didn't know much about him as a human being. I was not about to deitize him just because he had passed, like so many others did and continue to do. I don't hold Colorado against him simply because I don't believe the accusation. His wife forgave him for straying. That is good enough for me.

As a Warriors fan, from 1997 to 2013 it was hell to see the Lakers on the upcoming schedule. Bryant used to devour the Dubs like a starving wolf. He did most anything he wanted on the floor. Blowouts were not uncommon, especially down in L.A. 
I did the research and during that 1997-2013 stretch ending when Bryant tore his Achilles against the Warriors (famously thinking defender Harrison Barnes kicked him), the Lakers went 55-12 against Golden State. The 12 Warrior wins were rather shocking—not that they won so few, but that they won so many versus the Black Mamba and friends. 

I cannot single out any specific efforts or plays from Bryant against Golden State; after so many years they've all kind of blended together in my head. Or been blocked out due to the pain. You must understand just how bad the Warriors were compared to the Lakers in those days. (Watch tonight's Warriors/Lakers game and you'll grasp it a little.)

I do vividly remember the last time Bryant rolled through Oakland as a visiting player. By then the Lakers were down and the Warriors were on their way to 73 wins and a conference championship. Bryant couldn't play anymore and it was known he'd retire. He'd been awful in a previous matchup that year, and he was only so-so tonight. Still, all eyes were on him. The fans cheered him and even chanted for him to re-enter the game when he rested. Bryant humbly acknowledged the crowd, and then disappeared into the night.

In those moments, it didn't matter that Bryant had spent most of 20 years beating Golden State's brains in. All that mattered were the shows he put on every time he came to Oakland. If you paid to see him, you always got your money's worth. As a basketball player, he was what greatness was all about. Warriors fans have always appreciated greatness and more to the point, they've always recognized it. 
The cheers were the fans' way of saying to Bryant "Hey, our own team sucked forever. Thank you for showing us what great basketball looks like, and for giving us something to aspire toward. You never cheated us out of a single cent. You've earned our respect." (Of course, it helped a lot that Golden State was the defending champ at the time, while the Lakers were headed for the lottery.)

Truthfully, I felt a little guilty the day he died. Earlier that week I'd complained that a couple of my NBA Hoops basketball card sets continued churning out Bryant cards two years after he stepped away. Now—if I were the type of person willing to profit off a stranger's death—those cards could pull in a few bucks. (This card, however, I'll never part with. As the young people say, it's pretty dope.)

There's more Bryant-related material I wanted to cover, but I've rambled on enough. Time to wrap things up, and I'll do so by suggesting the following: if you haven't already seen this spliced Michael Jordan/Kobe Bryant highlight reel, watch it now. If you haven't already heard O'Neal's reaction to Bryant's death, watch it now. If you haven't already seen Bryant's film Dear Basketball...what are you waiting for?

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